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Written In Skirts

Johannesburg was already a tough city back in the 1980s when artist Billy Makhubele was stabbed. At the time, he was triumphant in his success as the first SA artist to create wire-art bicycles. He could barely keep pace with the demand.

Billy MakhubeleHis range of wire sculptures, bicycles, penny-farthings and cars had been exhibited at the Market Art Gallery, before Makhubele represented SA at the Valparaiso Biennale in Chile in 1985.

Twisting wire was difficult with a painful wrist, but Makhubele persevered for another five years. Eventually he decided to return to the Giyani area of Limpopo to reconnect with his Shangaan heritage. He began collecting rare beaded and carved items. He also sought the assistance of his two wives and seven daughters to create beaded artworks using newspaper headlines for inspiration.

In the mid-1980s there was little interest in this art since beadwork was regarded as a craft. But a determined Makhubele remembered reading that art dealer Natalie Knight had co-authored a book on Ndebele beadwork, as well as curating an Ndebele exhibition in the US. Unannounced, he presented himself at her gallery and persuaded Knight to accompany him to Giyani, where, fascinated, she immersed herself in Shangaan and Tsonga art and culture.

The alliance and partnership of Knight and Makhubele has culminated in Dungamansi (Stirring Waters), the exhibition showing at the Johannesburg Art Gallery (Jag). This huge exhibition is the result of almost 30 years' gestation under Knight's research.

She has interviewed Shangaan sangomas and artists and produced a video of the Makhubele family, including his 90-year-old aunt, Nwa Manjojo. According to Jag director Clive Kellner, Knight's perseverance has more than paid off. The buzz surrounding this exhibition has been unprecedented. Additionally, it makes history as the first major exhibition in SA of Tsonga and Shangaan art from Limpopo.

Accompanying the exhibition is a large, colour catalogue and video documenting the history of the complex Shangaan/Tsonga nation, as told through a personal memoir of Makhubele and family, recorded over the years by Knight.

There are 12 essays written by experts in the field, including Karel Nel and Anitra Nettleton. Traditional woodcarvings inhabit the first section of the exhibition. Many of the snuffboxes, walking sticks and headrests in the collection were carved in the late 19th and early 20th century, and were collected by people who did not record carvers' names.

The second section is a rich collection of beaded skirts worn by sangomas and inyangas, as well as medicine gourds, bones, drums and dolls (symbolic children), which they used to help with healing.

The third section focuses on the contemporary beadwork mostly made by the Makhubele family, whose members made beaded wraparound skirts (minceka), epicting positive events in SA news, which later became works of art.

For Makhubele the good news is very good indeed. He has undergone a reversal of fortune, putting him on a road far from dusty Limpopo. He will be exhibiting at the National Museum of M K Ciurlionis in Kaunas, Lithuania, in November.

Thereafter, plans are under way for Dungamanzi to tour SA's national galleries and African art museums in the US, the UK and Canada.

It makes sense to drive to Jag's guarded parking in Joubert Park for this fabulous exhibition.


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